MOSCOW OR MAIDENHEAD

” … Moscow or Maidenhead, mum is always the word.” (Guy Burgess’s tailor in An Englishman Abroad)

Scrolling through some Facebook news-bites I spotted, in the periphery of my visual field, one of those fuddy-duddyisms long beloved of marketing hucksters. The word was “bespoke.” It appeared in a browser ad for a company that sells menswear online.

These cats were counting on two things. First, they assumed I must be a fan of ITV’s Downton Abbey, a slapstick comedy in which the gentry are depicted as rakishly attired motor-racing Fabians; second, that neither I nor my friends — nor for that matter my enemies — would have easy access to a dictionary.

But seeing this word — bespoke — had the effect of jump-starting a reverie of misspent youth. Literally misspent. Hundreds of years ago, as the recipient of an unexpected (if minor) windfall, which happened to coincide with a spectacular depreciation of the pound against the dollar, I did what any exiled Ugly American would do: I bounded into Henry Poole & Co, at Number 15 Savile Row, in order to have myself registered and fitted.
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Several weeks later, summoned by the proprietor’s secretary (this was after intermediate fittings for “posture” and “drape”), I slipped out of my Doc Martin 12-holes and a pair of scorched-earth 501s and into a three-button, double-vented, pinstripe worsted that seemed a harmonization of all physical forces in the universe.

If you’ve ever looked at one of these garments up close, you’ll have noted the undisguised handmade factor. So-called “running stitches” are visible along external seams. At sleeve-ends, buttonholes that are clearly not the product of machines surround actual openings through which buttons may be operated with buttery smoothness. Dozens of hand-tied sewing knots can be found in inconspicuous locations, such as the undersides of lapels. Even the odd tick of tailor’s chalk may be visible here and there. While a ready-to-wear (or “off-the-peg”) suit of decent quality will look fine in a tintype, an adoring flapper clutching at each non-U elbow, what it won’t do is feel fantastic six or seven hours later, when you’re shit-faced at false dawn and kicking a soccer ball through Ravenscourt Park.

I recall even now his genial guffaws when I asked my cutter, Mr Ricks†, about the word “bespoke.”

“Yes, sir, we do use that term, though with tongue fairly in cheek nowadays, and generally only when taking orders for Soviet diplomats, Saudi princes, and Americans.”

Ah ha! — my accent had degenerated just sufficiently to allow me to pass for … Canadian.


†Not his real name but an elaborate triple-level pun that would conceal his true identity to anyone but … Mr Ricks.

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